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"My values are not everybody’s values, and that’s what makes life interesting"
Talking about American parenthood with Jessica Grose, author of Screaming on the Inside
Maybe because the year is ending, or because I’ve just come off a big announcement years in the making, or because we’re in a triple pandemic and no one but parents seem to care, or because last night I had an invigorating discussion with a wonderful group of students on the subject of how we might make creativity and care a mass collective condition—I’ve been thinking lately about how we press on in times even when everything around us seems to discount what we’re experiencing.
One of the ways we do that is by finding others who validate our struggle. When parents started falling apart and getting pushed out of the workforce during the pandemic, I had this frustrating sense of urgency— this desire to talk about all the things that got us here, that were happening, that might happen. Like many parents, in early 2020 I was sprawled between my computer and my children, trying to hold it together. I felt isolated and left behind, and I had an internal clamoring for recognition and for change— a desire to tap into some collective voice that told it how it was.
Around that time, Jessica Grose’s writing for the New York Times became a steady force—one that would evolve with the changing landscape of the care crisis as she tirelessly reported not only on how it was for parents and for kids (and for those doing elder care), but on what could be done to help. Her consistent reporting became one of those much-needed collective voices, an anchor in the storm. Today Jessica is an opinion writer at the Times who writes the parenting newsletter, and while opinion writing at the Times is rightly under fire for frequently and irresponsibly “just asking questions,” Jessica is an advocate not only for parents, but everyone affected by what she calls the “everybody issues” that are stuffed under the parenting umbrella.
In recent years, she has reported on Black maternal mortality, climate change, wellness traps, the ongoing child care crisis, gun violence, national shortages of formula and other basic necessities, gendered divisions of labor in the home, among other subjects—alongside more personal reflections on celebrating Jewish holidays with her kids, raising an American girl, and Pop It! toys. For many parents throughout America, her reporting has been a guiding light over the past few years—a welcome antidote to condescending parenting advice that circulates ad nauseam, and to a general culture of parental optimization.
In her new book, Screaming on the Inside: The Unsustainability of American Motherhood, Jessica digs into the “ideal mother,” exploring the American history of motherhood, and reporting on the current state of parenting, including questions around work, identity, the internet, and how we make meaningful change moving forward.
Screaming on the Inside is out today, and my holiday present to you all is below: I corresponded with Jessica just after the midterms about being a woman who writes about parenting, parents’ limited “choices,” Americans’ obsession with expert advice, and taking the long view on the hard current moment.
You’re very honest in the book about what you call the “ghettoization of topics like parenting in larger media organizations.” As you point out, “topics like paid leave, childcare support, education, and abortion should be everybody issues.” I imagine you continue to observe this problem, even since the pandemic and the reversal of Roe have emphasized how urgent and necessary it is to talk about these issues?
It’s necessary that we continue to talk about these issues among ourselves, if only for catharsis. But, we really do need male allies to take up the mantle on them, too. We can’t fight institutional sexism alone, because then it remains this circular narrative it’s historically been: Only women talk about it so it must only matter to women. I know so many men who feel harmed by the lack of paid parental leave, for example, so they need to start shouting about it!! It’s something that needs to happen on basically every front: in workplaces, in politics, and at home, and so the more people talking about it, the better.
You write in the book about how you felt pressured to go off antidepressants when you were pregnant, which really cuts to the heart of a lot of cultural issues around maternal mental health. What did you learn from that experience about beliefs around women’s mental health?
Even though there are so many spaces for people to be honest about the challenges of pregnancy and motherhood, there is a much larger countervailing cultural force pressuring women to only express happiness and joy. Any time I have written honestly about mental health and motherhood, I get feedback from readers implying that if you have any kind of mental health challenges you shouldn’t be a parent. Which is both cruel and unrealistic. It also compounds mental health issues and prevents some people from asking for help, because they are afraid they will be made to feel that they are not good mothers.
One thing you report on in the book is the impossible compromises parents have to make because of the conflict between the ideal worker and the ideal mother. I’m interested in how these impossible, limited choices often make the work of parenting feel so out of our control. Can you talk about how choice comes up for you, as both a parent and a writer?
Most “choices” offered to mothers around work are hardly choices at all. Especially because our work in the United States is tied to our health care, many mothers cannot afford to take a job that is more flexible or fewer hours, even if they would prefer to do that. Also in the early years of a child’s life, child care is so exorbitantly expensive, many mothers who would like to keep working are pushed out of their jobs because they don’t earn enough to pay for care. On the other side of the coin, many parents would like to leave paid employment for a while when they have kids, but they can’t afford to do that, either.
In my own life, I quit a job because I was so sick during my pregnancy with my older daughter. This was not a choice I made happily or really actively, it was forced on me because the other options (continuing to work while extremely sick or going on short-term disability which would have paid me a tiny portion of my salary) were not palatable. And still, I was lucky to be married to someone who had health insurance, otherwise I would not have even had that choice to make.
You also point out in the book, drawing on sociologist Caitlyn Collins’ work, that American mothers are more likely to “cite expert views” when asked about their definition of a “good mother,” whereas European women rarely draw on experts in their definitions. Why do you think expert advice dominates the contemporary discourse on motherhood in America?
I think part of it is that we have such an individualistic culture in the United States. We don’t have paid leave, or universal health care, and there’s this idea that you should be able to do everything yourself and have all the answers on hand. Of course, no one has all the answers, and it’s almost impossible to have a one-size-fits all response to parents seeking advice. Every kid is different. Every family is different. My values are not everybody’s values, and that’s what makes life interesting. If we had more supportive communities around us, we might not feel like we had to come up with all of the answers ourselves and rely on experts so much in our day-to-day lives.
You write extensively in the book about the dark side of the mom internet, especially influencer culture and its attendant performance of care work. I’ve never been particularly drawn to momfluencers, but I often think about how their aspirational qualities relate to the more subtle, everyday iterations of the ideal mother, even those that circulate in progressive circles. Do you see influencer culture dialoguing with other iterations of the ideal mother?
Especially the image-based platforms like Instagram show us this picture-perfect vision, because that’s what is most appealing to advertisers. But even on private Instagrams, nobody wants to put up an unattractive photo of themselves. I sure don’t! The majority of moms, I believe, know that what influencers are selling is not real. We can’t all look perfect all the time, we can’t all have perfect values all the time, and yet the vision of perfection is still really seductive. In terms of what’s going on in progressive circles, in all political discourse online there’s also some virtual signaling, showing you’re part of the right group, with the exact right beliefs. But we all have grubby evil thoughts and we have gremlin days when we look terrible, because we are human beings.
You propose some solutions to the many-layered problems of American motherhood toward the end of the book, including paid leave and governmental help with childcare, shifting workplace cultures, and having honest discussions with partners about balancing domestic work. What are your thoughts on how misogynistic views of women in this country fit into the cultural and professional expectations on which you report in your book?
If you take the long view, women and mothers have made tremendous progress over the past century. I have interviewed a lot of historians and economists who are in their 70s and 80s and they always remind me that when they were young women, most professional roles were cut off for them, they were not legally entitled to their own credit, and they could legally be fired for getting pregnant. Whenever I get down on where we are in terms of misogynistic backlash, I remember how far we have come in a relatively short period of time, and I know that it can get better.
On the other side of the midterms, is there anything you want to leave us with regarding where we go from here to better support American parents?
I’m relieved that a lot of the most retrograde politicians did not win election [last month]. Paid leave is something I am confident will happen for everyone in the next 10-20 years. If you’re reading this and you’re not a parent, reach out to a parent in your life and offer to hold their baby or take them out for a drink or just be part of their community in a way that would be life affirming.